Sidewalk speech

"Sidewalk speech" Continued...

During January’s oral arguments about the Massachusetts case, a majority of the court seemed skeptical of the law. Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal on the court appointed by President Obama, called the 35-foot distance a long way. “I guess I’m a little bit hung up on why you need so much space,” she told lawyers defending the rule.

Alito said the law set up a situation where an abortion clinic employee could escort a client into the zone and persuade her it is a safe facility while a pro-life counselor would be muzzled and unable to express her viewpoint that the center is unsafe. This gives governmental preference to one type of speech over another.

Jennifer Miller, representing Massachusetts, argued the law is needed to solve congestion problems around clinic entrances. Lawyers at the court defending the buffer zone, including representatives of the Obama administration, claimed the sidewalk counselors could get their message out by yelling and holding up signs.

But Justice Antonin Scalia objected to calling the counselors protestors. “That is not how they present themselves,” he said. “They do not say they want to make protests. They say they want to talk quietly to the women who are going into these facilities. Now how does that make them protestors?”

Scalia suggested a more narrowly tailored law that would bar protests and screaming within 35 feet of an entrance. Reichard, speaking on The World and Everything in It, said yelling would defeat the purpose of counselors who are trying to be friendly, like the case’s main plaintiff: “Mrs. McCullen looks like America’s grandma, very kind and gentle, not sure she could yell if she wanted to. She cannot speak in a calm, conversational manner from 35 feet away.”

CAN WE TALK? Candace Griswold kneels in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lincoln.
Edward Lee Pitts
CAN WE TALK? Candace Griswold kneels in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lincoln.
OUTSIDE OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD CENTER in Lincoln, the couple on their smoking break go back inside the clinic without acknowledging the counselors. But Sue Johnson, a sidewalk counselor here for 10 years, has plenty of success stories. Last fall a girl, her boyfriend, and her mother walked into the clinic. The counselors could see the mother crying. Soon the girl came running out of the center and into the arms of one of the counselors.

“I can’t go through with it,” she told the counselor. “It’s a boy.” Seeing the ultrasound changed the girl’s mind. She had her baby in October. The counselors collected donations to give her food and diapers.

“It’s always really messy situations, and you just want to fix their lives,” says Johnson, who has attended the births of two children after meeting their mothers on the sidewalk. “But you can’t. All you can do is give them love and be supportive so they don’t feel alone.”

Johnson once jumped into the car of a woman who kept driving past the abortion clinic when it was located on a quiet residential street. Johnson could tell by the girl’s sad face that she didn’t want the abortion. At that old location, an area pro-life group had purchased a home next to the clinic. Johnson took the girl there to cry.

Griswold keeps in touch with five girls who decided to keep their babies. She took them to doctor’s appointments and knows the birth date, size, and weight of each baby. One mother suffering from an abusive relationship lived with Griswold for nearly nine months while she graduated from high school. The mother now attends college. Her baby girl is 4 years old.

Lincoln’s new Planned Parenthood mega-clinic opened in 2012 in the commercial district partly to blunt the sidewalk counselors, who no longer own the property next to the clinic. But the counselors say being on a busy street gives the local pro-life movement more exposure.

Around noon, Griswold is about to end her sidewalk shift. But her counseling sessions aren’t done. Before she leaves her phone rings. “Hello, honey,” Griswold answers. It is one of the young women she met as a sidewalk counselor. They make plans to meet for lunch. Griswold says it will be her treat and she will put gas in the girl’s car for making the trip. Before hanging up, Griswold says, “I love you.”

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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